Local Food Goes Loco

Published in Gourmet Live 03.30.11
My Empire of Dirt author Manny Howard takes the locavore trend to his own backyard and begins a Stunt Foodways movement that’s all about “cooking crazy with conviction”

A meal that results from your own hard work is strong juju. A few years back, I turned my backyard in Flatbush, Brooklyn, into a farm and—with the notable exception of salt, pepper and coffee beans—lived off only the food I grew and husbanded back there. For nearly 60 days running I ate roast chicken, collard greens and tomatoes for dinner. I’d be a liar if I said it didn’t get boring, but I’d be as guilty of understatement if I didn’t declare that (other than fatherhood) building and maintaining my little farm and harvesting livestock and produce from it was the most satisfying accomplishment of my life. This lent form to a passion that has always lived inside me, and it birthed a movement: Stunt Foodways. It’s about cooking crazy with conviction.

“Foodways” is the term for why we eat what we eat, how, and with whom we eat it. Anthropologists study foodways the same way they pore over folktales, and scrutinize hand tools—for crucial insight into a culture. Once upon a time, it was the foodways of far off, exotic places that grabbed the attention and imagination of social scientists. In 1989 Carlo Petrini founded Slow Foodways to confront the gustatory chaos he believed fast food had inflicted on his beloved Italy. It is now an international organization. In the United States, we have regional outfits like the Southern Foodways Alliance. Founded in 1999 by John Egerton of Birmingham, Alabama, this one promotes and preserves the robust and finely textured culinary tradition of the South Eastern United States. If those folks who are committed to urban agriculture don’t already have their own foodways institute, they will have built one before the next harvest. So, what is Stunt Foodways? Stunt Foodways promotes the adventure in every meal by celebrating the fever dream of overly ambitious cookery. It is not about eating bugs and grubs. That’s nasty.

Stunt Foodways is a dedication through work (occasionally grueling and ceaseless) to the fair and honest treatment of ugly and ungainly food. Stunt Foodists are fanatics of the whole critter and the marginal meat. We are also committed to feeding unruly crowds. Because only by cooking hard and well beyond one’s pay grade can one hope for great joy and binding fellowship at the table.

The ways of Slow Food and Stunt Food do share many goals, but very few practices. Waging their holy war against modernity and its primary vice, speed, the occasionally precious followers of Slow Food concern themselves with meals that are “good, clean, and fair.”

Bully for them.

Thanks, George. Amazing feed. Hey, and don’t forget to send along the recipe for that watermelon pickle. Photo by FPG/Getty Images

In the pursuit of food that is fun, great, and a helluva a lot of work, Stunt Foodists confront nothing less than the denial of death. Scoff if you like. There’s no escaping it, though; you know it in your bones. Your next meal could be your last. Whenever that day does arrive and your kinfolk gather around, will your eulogy be delivered, as your pizza was, by the bland herald of efficiency? Will it tell the flaccid tale of another fallen servant of convenience?

Or will your people celebrate the life of a true hero of the dinner table?

Now let me be clear, Stunt Foodways is no post-millennial urge, no leading trend. Stunt Foodists were present at the creation. Indeed, every great moment in history has its great meal (The Great Meal Theory of History) and every great meal was put on by a Stunt Foodist. During the dark days of the Trojan War, Achilles and Odysseus enjoyed a baroque battlefield meal of a sheep’s back, whole goat, and a chine of a wild hog, “first knitted” (whatever that is), carved, salted and roasted on a spit. Now that’s a meal strongly rooted in the tradition.

Again, in December 1783, after the victorious colonial general’s historic farewell address to his troops, George Washington hosted a feast for 80 men—his own and officers of the allied French army—at Fraunces Tavern. The offerings included cold poached striped bass with cucumber sauce, mushroom pastry, steak and kidney pie, roasted lamb stuffed with oyster forcemeat, smoked country ham with Madeira molded wine jelly, and watermelon pickles with pear honey. What identifies our foundingest father as a fellow traveler is not simply the ambition apparent in the menu he selected, but his enthusiasm for a crowd.

More recently, at The Fourth Moscow Conference in October, 1944, while negotiating the terms of what would be The Yalta Agreement, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin ordered up feasts of suckling pig, roasted chicken, beef and mutton for the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden and the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov.

“It’s just dinner.” You hear this wail of the defeated uttered every day. It is the weak mantra of the feeble hordes ignoring the truth that we each have but a fixed number of meals ahead of us. No matter how tempted to convenience fodder by the confounding, maybe infuriating events of the day we are, relegating even one meal to the slagheap of nutritive necessity is a dreadful act of submission.

Stunt Foodists are the sworn enemy of The Clock. This is not simply a metaphorical antipathy. Cooking crazy with conviction requires dedication but it also takes time. Standing one’s culinary ground after homework on a Wednesday will most certainly result in disaster, and domestic havoc is the reward of every Stunt Foodist. I’ve been heard to bark over my shoulder at my starving children, forbidding them one more rice cake, whilst whisking away at a sauce on the stovetop, assuring them (the ingrates!) that dinner will be served after I have deglazed the pan...and not one minute before. Kids don’t get to bed on time; even the most appreciative spouse gets fed up. Dishes get done alone in glum silence.

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